Into Clean Air                                       October, 2009 


Steven Shen Kanming and his wife and son and I went to Anji, which is in Huzhou, a small city in Zhejiang Province.  A couple of you will like this one, because it is an adventure, not hiking through Afghanistan for sure, but an adventure nevertheless - hidden dragons, many waterfalls, and how face can be made in China (sometimes).

Steven picked me up in the afternoon of national day, after the big parade in Beijing.  Or, I should say, Steven and his driver.   Let me tell you, it does wonders for one’s public image to have the big black car with the driver pull up in front of your apartment, and the government official jump out and greet you warmly.  I highly recommend it.  Over the last few years of being in China, the standard mode of travel is just that- black car, driver, my buddy in the back seat.   At ZUST,  I keep waiting every morning for the car and driver to take me from class to class, but so far it hasn’t materialized.   Must be on back order.

Huzhou is a small city between Shanghai and Jiaxing.   It borders Lake Tai, which is famous as one of China’s largest fresh water lakes, and now famous for its eutrophication and pollution.   Because of its limestone basin, it is also famous for its scholar’s stones, which some of you have seen in Ann and Dave’s garden.   The lake is about 900 square miles, no slouch of a lake, but only about two meters average depth.   Sort of like the Missouri River.

Steven grew up near Lake Tai, and he told me about going swimming there.   As with much of urban China, thirty years ago this area was rural, and the river was clean.   And as with much of China, the area is now developed, although not in the hyperventilating mode of the bigger cities.  The downtown part of Huzhou- old Huzhou- has big urban trees and a relaxed feel.   I guess I am getting acclimated when a place of 2.5 million people feels like a small town.

The driver dropped us off at a small local restaurant in Huzhou, where we met Wendy, Steven’s wife, and their son Can, who is 15.   Steven said he would let his driver go home, to be with his family.  After all, fair is fair.  It was national day and it was about 6:00 in the evening.

Dinner was good, just the four of us.  I avoided the chicken feet, but the fish and pork and vegetable dishes were all tasty.   I had some chrysanthemum tea and we shared a bottle or two of Chinese huang jiu yellow wine (which is actually brown) and which is not so strong as the alcohol that often fuels these events.

We walked back to the hotel, through downtown Huzhou, stopping for a while in the big department store.   The department store is six floors, with an atrium in the middle surrounded by the escalators.   This is Marshall Field’s in the 1960’s, at Christmas.  There are a lot of people buying, a lot looking.  On a Thursday night, the night of national day.   Much of the retail space is given over to brand names, which I presume rent the space in the store as they do in the US.   Lots of different clothing retailers, lots of styles, from professional woman on the go to hip-hop street kid.   I am not sure whose clothes are more expensive.  Housewares, kitchen, toys and jewelry.   Jewelry is, of course, on the first floor.  Along with the health food store, where I considered some protein powder and bee pollen.  Too expensive.  Too weird, also.  There was a KFC and a Mickey D’s right across the street, even in this fairly small town.

Every store-in-the-store has several employees, all of whom seem willing and eager to help.  Not so much like the US.    I could bargain in the health food store, although this is generally not done in the department stores.

I could get CCTV9 in the hotel, so I watched something with people speaking English.  Breakfast was the typical Chinese hotel breakfast- western and Chinese items.  You have to keep in mind that the Chinese like eggs for breakfast, usually hard-boiled, and they like pork, so bacon and fried eggs is not a stretch.  And they like big breakfasts.  Most hotels have a grill, where the egg guy will make eggs whatever style you want, and depending on the class of the hotel, add in tomatoes, onions, spices.  Still no cheese, except at the most westernized places.   Bread for toast is generally available.  The coffee was actually okay, maybe because I got there early, before it had a chance to sit on the burner for an hour.

We left about 9:30 in the morning for Anji.  We met up with several other people en route, two of Steven’s subordinates and three organization department guys, one from the provincial level.  A couple had wives and kid along, so this was a family outing for the families and a family outing for the leadership family.  The organization department is the party side of the personnel department, or at least that is how I understand it.   The organization department is the unit that decides who goes to Chicago to IIT, and who gets promoted.

The drive was about 90 minutes or so, we checked into the hotel in Anji.  Parked in the back lot, listening to Uptown Girl on the radio.  Anji is a county-level city, and the poorest of the five Huzhou districts or counties.  You can tell about some things in China easily.  Huzhou is the city, and the hotel is fine.  Not Shanghai fine, but fine.  In rural Anji, the hotel is listed as four stars, but that is four stars in Anji.  So the hotel entrance is not fancy, and there is no suited bellhop to open the door and grab the luggage.  And the lobby is not so over-designed.   And even though the place is clean, you get that sort of musty feeling that you get in Florida, and I suppose everywhere in the global south, that comes from low-lying land and humid air and things just decaying or being eaten everywhere.   I am for sure not drinking the water from the tap here.   Not many westerners here.  The breakfast next day was Chinese only, with hot orange juice and no coffee, and no tea.

At lunch on Friday we met up with the big leader of the day, who is the head of the organization department in Huzhou.  Seems like a very nice guy.  Of course, he has a daughter who is 17 and wants to know about business schools in the US.   The leader wants her to select a school in the top 50 in the US.  Her high school has some sort of relationship with Purdue University- maybe her English teacher went there-  so she is thinking of that.   Cherry and I talked about this for a while, about sometimes not getting what you pay for, and companies that can hire two graduates from a smaller school for the price of what they think they will have to pay for one graduate from Northwestern, or someplace.  And schools that are focused on finance, and logistics, and health care.  And finding a school that is a good fit for her.   I am in a strange place in China.  I know things that are useful and valuable to people, but not so useful that I can make real money from it.   If the world will only shift, just a little bit ….

After lunch, we drove to the main event, about 45 minutes away, to the Hidden Dragon and Many Waterfalls park.  Some  reviews 

Huzhou, like some other cities in Zhejiang, has a curious landscape.  Most of the city is dead flat, like Chicago.   The land is cut repeatedly by small streams or constructed storm drainage systems, and there seems hardly a flow of water in them anywhere.   But you drive outside of town, to Anji in this case, and there are hills, steep and covered in trees and lots of them.  They just rise out of the ground, like the Alps do in southern Germany.  Flat farm, flat farm, flat farm- bang- too steep to ski.  Maybe a 70 degree slope.  Like the hills poked themselves up out of the ground, and there is more hill waiting below to come out.

So “hills” are maybe the wrong term.  These are not mountains, by comparison with the Rockies, but they sure are bigger than suburban Chicago Palos Hills or Country Club Hills or Vernon Hills.   I can tell because Anji is home to a large water pumping station, including a dam, set in the rushing river coming out of the … hills.  There is some information about the pumping station, but I need better before I can write about pump size and how much water is supplied.   Sometimes you have to get the facts right.

The mayor of Anji has taken environmental protection seriously, although there are still many factories contributing a lot of pollution to air and water.   But the theme is to make Anji an “ecological county” which means that future factories will have to agree to meet the legal requirements.

Part of the reason for the ecological concern is that Anji is the home of bamboo in China, and bamboo is a mainstay of the local economy.  


Photo: Robert Schrader


We think of bamboo as a real tropical plant, but it grows here just fine, thank you, despite what we think.  And this bamboo is an amazing material.  We also all think of it as versatile, but you have no idea. People use it as a construction material, for walls, floors, columns, and beams, for furniture, for medicine, for food and beer and wine, for a form of paper, for weaving into rope and string, for art projects, for clothing and towels.    I give up.  China is going to win.  This bamboo stuff is more versatile than concrete.  Even more versatile than oak or pine.   At lunch, we had bottles of Science Bamboo Beer.   We ate bamboo shoots, sat on bamboo furniture, in a building decorated with bamboo, and watched the trucks wheezing down the road overloaded with cut bamboo to be taken for processing into any of a hundred products.   But not bamboo paper.  It is still made, but the local factories were closed because of their environmental problems- too much water demand, too much air and water pollution.  So those factories were moved to the south of China.


Bamboo harvest


Like many of the places I have been in China, the Hidden Dragon and Many Waterfalls spot is not on most of the tour guides.   There are occasional foreigners, but not like at the Great Wall or in Beijing or in Shanghai.  This does not prevent many of the signs along the trails being in English, as well as Chinese.  There is no doubt whatsoever that English is the second language of China.  People listen to, or watch, CSPAN and CNN in English, and get American music and movies in English, and read the NYT online just like we do.   Me, I have figured out how to recognize the Chinese characters for the numbers 1, 2, and 3.  I will probably have 4 down by the end of next week, if I work at it.   I think I know the difference between men and women.  In Chinese, I mean.  People keep asking me what I think of some current US pop music group, and I can’t even tell them my knowledge of music stopped with the Beach Boys.  No frame of reference.

The hills are densely covered in pine and bamboo, and pretty up close and from a distance, but the real treat is the climb into the hills around the waterfalls.   There are many wonderful climbs like this in China, with not-so-regularly cut stone serving as steps and sometimes there are railings made of steel pipe and sometimes just of steel reinforcing rod.   And sometimes, no railing.  None of this would ever meet OSHA standards, and the lawsuits in the US would shut the place down in about a New York minute.   But it is fun, and more natural, and more human scale, than if there were required elevators and pink release forms and concrete steps, 7.5 inches high and 12 inches deep.  Below is a wood slat suspension bridge with chains for railings.  It is rickety.  If you fall here, it would be ... bad. 


The wood slats are more than a few inches apart ... just for fun


So you can argue about China is still a developing country, and how far we have come, to take the danger out of nature in the US, but people take their little kids up this steep and uncertain climb, and the sense of personal responsibility is much greater.   We have had this discussion before, and you know that last winter I was a big supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but do you want this climb to be fun or not?   Sure, there is a continuum, and I am not buying helmets and pitons, but how can we make this sort of stuff accessible (as it were) to most people without ruining it (for most people)?   The way this is built, it is fun and hard.  You could fall and get hurt.


Photo:  Leon Chen, at


There are 11 stations along the climb, each one on a small piece of rock or constructed into the hillside, where you can buy water and drinks and maybe a snack.  And places to sit for a few minutes before resuming.  And some have bathrooms.   So this is my version of Everest, and Jon Krakauer has nothing on me.  I am not just writing about it, I did it.   The climb is sometimes steep, sometimes flat enough for something passing for sidewalk, but mostly it is steep with steps that are uneven and jagged and non-uniform.  The waterfalls are all around, in the vertical hills, now too steep for trees.   At some places, there is no room for steps, so the climb is on a ladder made of reinforcing rod, or some very steep steps like the ones in those hidden attic stairways.   But the steps are not flat, they are three reinforcing rods spaced an inch or two apart, welded to the frame (probably better for footing than a flat piece of steel or wood).

This is one of those climbs where you get a few hundred feet up, and the view back down the waterfall, in the rocks and hills, is gorgeous, and you have hit a couple of the rest stops, and you think, okay, that was fun.   And then you look way up in the hill, and there are people with kids walking way up there, and it is like watching the field action from the upper deck in Comiskey - no- US Cellular- no, Guaranteed Rate Field? ... where the White Sox play.   How did those people get so small?  And then you realize, damn, they are not on some other hill,  they are on your hill, just above you by a few hundred meters.

When Jim Ford says he doesn’t understand about my high school analogy, that Chinese government relationships are like those in the high school student government, he doesn’t know about one-ups-man ship.   Before the climb into clean air, we had lunch with the big leader and the three other organization department guys and the big Party guy from Jiaxing and the  wives and kids.   This was a family lunch, but the venue, in Anji,  suggests that this was also a bonding event.  The toasts were plentiful,  and I did my share.  We had rice wine, beer, and some Wu Liang Ye, which is a baijiu, a clear alcohol like vodka.   Not all leaders have to be big drinkers, and one is able to decline, but face goes up, at least for some Chinese, with the ability to drink.   So I held my own, and I think this made a difference.   More about that later.   But on the climb, it meant that I could end a rest stop by saying, “zou,” which means let’s go, and everyone moved.   Or maybe they were just deferring to the old guy.

Anyway, the climb is set around hundreds of waterfalls.  Some are small, like a bathtub faucet left on full, and some are sheets of water coming over a sheer rock face, twenty feet wide and falling fifty, into the next pool on the journey down.

The steep hill faces are about fifty feet apart, although that varies, on both sides of the climb, and there is a center spine of water that is the main flow.   There is a foot path is on each side of this spine, so there is a sort of up stairs and down stairs quality to the scene.  In some places the paths merge, since there is not enough room between the rock faces  for two paths.  In some places, the merge is down to the width of a ladder.   You climb the ladder over the rushing water below.

So this is not one continuous waterfall, but waterfalls all along the sides of the steps-ladders-stairs, and a center cascade of water flowing into pools at many levels, before continuing down.  Each level has something different to offer in access to the cascade, or access to the pool, or access to the little waterfalls on the sides.